Last Time in Bangkok

by Grace Loh Prasad

The immediate family members were invited into the small, doorless room, covered floor-to-ceiling in bright blue tiles. The only decoration was a high, small alcove displaying a crucifix and a simple bouquet. This was not how I expected to see my brother, lying on a platform covered up to his chest in a white sheet, wearing a dark blue suit. His arms were straight by his side and his hands looked dark and unnaturally big. Makeup disguised his yellowed skin, and he was clean-shaven. He was still wearing his glasses, and his eyes were shut in peaceful repose. His face had been gaunt in the photos my uncle took in the hospital the previous week, and my husband had commented on how handsome Ted looked with more chiseled features. But today his cheeks were plumped up again, and I wondered if that was the embalmer’s craft, trying to make the deceased look as much as possible like his portrait, like the stocky, muscular man everyone remembered.

In January 2010, I went with my husband and son to visit my parents in Taiwan. I had advised them not to make a big deal out of my birthday, but my cousin’s wife found out about it and invited us over for an informal dinner in my honor. I am smiling in the photos, posing with chopsticks in mid-air holding “long life” noodles. We took a few family portraits as well—Anil and I standing behind my mom and dad, the four of us looking at the camera while two-year-old Devin leans forward in his high chair to get closer to the strawberries-and-cream birthday cake.

We were still sitting at the table eating cake when my brother Ted called. Ted had lived in Bangkok for almost two decades; his wife was Thai and his children were bilingual. He was scheduled to arrive in Taipei the next day. He didn’t visit my parents often, but when he did, he tried to plan his trips to coincide with mine. I heard my dad say, “What? What?” into his cell phone, and then “you better talk to Grace.” He handed the phone to me. My brother explained that he was not coming to Taiwan after all, that he had been feeling unwell and visited the doctor a few days earlier—something he rarely did. Several tests and x-rays later, he was diagnosed with a tumor the size of a large mango. It was in his liver, and had been completely undetected until it began to press against his kidneys.

I walked into the next room so I could hear better, but even then the words didn’t sink in. Ted calmly explained what the doctors had told him about this type of cancer and his treatment options. The liver is the only organ that can regenerate itself, he said with the conviction of a lifelong gambler, someone who always thought he could beat the odds. The prognosis is mixed, but I’m not worried. I could have years left. The doctors thought surgery might work, but only if my brother made immediate lifestyle changes: he needed to quit smoking, and take medication to manage his hepatitis and undiagnosed diabetes. They would evaluate him again in two months.

“Do the kids know?” I asked. My brother had three: sixteen- and fourteen-year-old daughters, and a nine-year-old son.

He paused. “Not really… They know something is wrong, but they don’t know what.”

For nine months, Ted underwent chemotherapy and various other treatments. I kept in touch with him via Skype and email, and was surprised to hear that he was well enough to keep working and traveling through the summer (he commuted between his home in Bangkok and his office in Singapore, where he worked for an international gaming consultancy).

I emailed my brother articles about recently passed U.S. health care reform and the high-risk pool, just in case he was eligible to return to the States for treatment. I inquired about the political unrest in Bangkok. I asked the dreaded but necessary questions: Do you have life insurance? (No.) Do the kids have legal status in Thailand? (No.) Will your wife get a job? (No.) At one point, he learned that his company was behind on payroll, had negative cash flow, and was going to lay off all its employees. While my anxiety mounted, Ted remained stubbornly optimistic. He saw it as just another setback rather than a crisis.

The doctors reversed their initial recommendation and did not perform surgery since the cancer had spread, so their focus turned to killing the cancer cells. Ted applied for a patient assistance program to get subsidized access to Nexavar, which would otherwise cost six thousand dollars per month. In August, my dad wired him twenty thousand dollars to pay for an experimental procedure called Selective Internal Radiation Therapy, in which high doses of radioactive microspheres are injected directly into the tumor.

The SIR-spheres procedure went well, but in September, Ted was hospitalized again. When he didn’t improve after more than a week, and was too weak to carry on a phone conversation, I knew I had to go to Bangkok. I booked the ticket on Friday and departed San Francisco on Tuesday. I persuaded my dad—over his protests that it would be too difficult to travel due to his advanced Parkinson’s—to meet me in Bangkok. It may be our last chance, I told him.

I spent the fourteen-hour flight reading magazines and watching movies, unable to sleep, unwilling to focus on the task in front of me. What does one say to a dying brother? We had never been close and spoke rarely, although the frequency increased after I found out he was sick. I had visited him in Bangkok a few times over the years, and he had come to San Francisco for my wedding and once after Devin was born. Except for those few trips, we were barely involved in each other’s lives. We had not lived on the same continent for more than twenty years. But something far stronger than reason tugged at me to go to his side.

I arrived in Bangkok after midnight on Wednesday. When I emerged from immigration and baggage claim, no one was there to greet me. I started walking through the terminal to see if my brother’s family was waiting at another meeting spot. From a distance, I saw Ted’s eldest daughter, Jenny, her brother, Billy, and their mom. I greeted Jenny first with a hug.

“Did you hear the news about Dad?” she asked.

“No. What?”

“He passed away last night,” she said matter-of-factly.

I put my hand over my mouth and started to cry. She said she sent an email the day before, but it must have been after I’d gotten on the plane. I was too late.

“I’m so sorry,” I said, choking up. “Don’t worry, I will help you.”

In the taxi, Jenny asked polite questions about my flight and my family, as though this were an ordinary conversation. I was amazed at her composure. She explained that she was “all cried out” from the day before. The funeral was set for the next day, Thursday. My dad was already in Bangkok, and my Uncle I-to had flown in earlier that day. While I was inflight, oblivious to the news that awaited me, everything had already been arranged.

We got to their apartment after one o’clock in the morning. It was too late to call Anil, and I hadn’t succeeded in reaching him while on layover in Hong Kong. It occurred to me that he already knew—that my entire family had read Jenny’s email by now—and that I was the last to find out.

Almost everyone was asleep already, but my dad came out to greet me. I hugged him, and apologized for not getting there sooner. There wasn’t much else to say. He looked so weak and diminished—back bent, chest hollow, hair unkempt. He could barely lift his head enough to look me in the eye. It had been a very long day.

Everyone was unusually restrained. They’d had twenty-four hours to process the news, but I was still in shock. Eight of us were crowded into the apartment: my sister-in-law and the three kids in one bedroom; my dad and uncle in the second bedroom; and me and my cousin Un-chun (who chaperoned my dad) in the third. Though the apartment was large by Thai standards, there wasn’t enough space to hold all the emotion. It was all too much, and yet it was so quiet, since it was the middle of the night.

After taking a shower, I went into the bedroom as quietly as possible and crawled into bed, wide awake. I was staying in what had been Ted’s bedroom, next to Un-chun who was already asleep. A long cylindrical pillow served as a divider in the middle of the mattress. I tried not to dwell on the fact that I was sleeping in a dead man’s bed.

At two o’clock in the morning, Jenny was still awake, sitting on the sofa looking through old family albums: photo after photo of two smiling girls with pigtails, their proud mom, their baby brother. Ted was mostly absent from these pages, since he was usually the one behind the camera. The last thing I remember was hearing Jenny’s cell phone or computer chirp from time to time with a new instant message.

I woke up before six o’clock but didn’t get out of bed until I heard voices. Un-chun was still asleep. I went out and said good morning to my niece Shelly, my dad and Uncle I-to. My dad stood up slowly and paused before taking a step, in case he got dizzy. He had his insulin shot first, then a handful of pills. We ate breakfast in silence, sitting side by side at a table pushed against the wall—fried eggs with a splash of Knorr sauce, toast, and sweetened instant coffee. I convinced my dad to let me change his flight from Friday to Saturday so we’d have more time together. I called the airline, but the reservations desk wasn’t open yet.

When I packed for my trip, I chose casual, light-colored clothes. Thailand was hot and humid, and I made a conscious decision to avoid my usual dark, urban uniform. I briefly considered bringing a black dress but ultimately decided against it. The irony hit me that morning when I realized I had nothing appropriate to wear to the funeral.

Ted’s wife kindly offered to lend me something to wear. She too was incredibly composed, focused intently on taking care of her kids and in-laws to suppress a tidal wave of grief. Ted’s death left her not only without a husband, but without any means of support. She brought over a handful of hangers with black dresses and blouses—I was surprised that she didn’t have more black clothing. Then again, she may have only chosen things that would fit me, since she was much more petite than I. She and the girls wore simple black dresses. In the handful of outfits she gave me, there was one black and white sleeveless lace dress that I liked, but it seemed too pretty, too cheerful to wear to such an occasion. Instead I chose a plain black blouse with a ruffled placket and pearl buttons, to go with my black pants. The buttons strained across my chest so I had to keep my breathing shallow.

After I was dressed and ready, I cracked open Jenny’s laptop to quickly check email. Even though I really wanted to talk to Anil and Devin, there wasn’t enough time for Skype. We were in a rush to get to the hospital by eight-thirty, and there was no privacy anyway, no space in which to confront my emotions.

My dad was the last to be ready. Jenny said, “Grandpa can’t stop crying.” I went into the bedroom and saw my usually stoic dad sitting on the edge of the bed, head bent over, eyes closed. I don’t remember ever seeing him cry, not even at his own mother’s funeral. I ran my hand over his back and gave him a hug, not knowing what to say. I’m sure his grief was compounded by the fact that my mom—his wife—was not there to support him. My mom was in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s and remained at home with caregivers around the clock. He could not even share with her his deep sorrow over the death of their son; she would neither comprehend nor remember. He would have to mourn for two.

The hospital was close to the apartment so it didn’t take long to get there. When we arrived, we were greeted by about twenty well-dressed women in black in the waiting room, mostly friends of Ted’s wife. Jenny and Shelly were carrying bouquets and trying not to cry. Billy stuck by his mother’s side.

We went downstairs to the room where they kept Ted’s body draped in a white sheet. I don’t know what to call it, whether it was the morgue or a makeshift chapel.

We all stood around on one side of the receiving area and listened to a short prayer service in Thai presided over by Rev. Srisuwan. My dad sat in a wheelchair provided by the hospital for the service. Un-chun videotaped the whole thing as though it were another piano recital or birthday dinner. I couldn’t bring myself to take out my camera.

I stood there silently crying, while Ted’s wife wailed over her husband and the kids cried, “Daddy! Daddy!” I went up closer and touched my brother’s shoulder, and said, “I’m sorry I didn’t get here in time.” I wanted to say more, but there were too many people around, and I didn’t want to break the flow of the ceremony.

We left the room again and waited while they lowered my brother’s body into a white casket. Four men went into the room and each took a corner of the bed sheet he was lying on and hoisted it up, then lowered him carefully into an improbably small and flimsy-looking white box. Ted’s wife and the kids wailed. The men put the cover into place and then began to seal the box with white tape. I leaned over and asked my dad, “Why are they sealing the box? I thought there was going to be another viewing at the church.”

He asked Rev. Srisuwan and she explained that it was just a precaution to prevent the body from moving, since we had to drive to the church where the funeral service would be performed. The men carried the casket and loaded it into a waiting van. The family got into two separate cars for the ride to the church. “Just relax,” someone told me. “With traffic it will probably take one hour or more to get there. You can sleep.”

I sat in the third row of the car with the minister’s wife. She spoke in Taiwanese to my dad and Un-chun, and her husband in the front seat, but we did not speak to each other. I was tired but didn’t sleep. I looked out the window as we passed shopping malls and outdoor restaurants and car dealerships on the way to the toll freeway. Giant billboards advertised TV shows, new high-rise condos, soft drinks, iPhones. Every so often among the maze of small streets and nondescript apartment blocks, a large portrait of King Bhumipol or Queen Sirikit would adorn a municipal hospital, school or sports stadium, and the glittering ornamentation and swooping lines of a Thai Buddhist temple would break up the gridlike monotony.

Since my last visit to Thailand almost four years ago, Bangkok had been overtaken by an enormous fleet of hot pink taxis, some of which were plastered with decals declaring “I love farangs (foreigners)! Welcome to Bangkok.” They were the polar opposite of square, somber British taxicabs—garish yet somehow fitting with the city’s wild reputation. I imagined that from the sky they looked like a swarm of bright iridescent beetles dotting the cityscape.

From the freeway, an endless series of signs announced “Welcome to Suvarnabhumi Airport,” yet I never actually saw the airport or any airplanes. It seemed we were constantly approaching while never actually arriving there; everything in Bangkok city seemed to be measured in terms of distance from this mythical destination. The airport had been built only four years prior, and I had actually passed through it on my previous visit without remembering much except for its enormous terminals.

Gradually the buildings began to thin out as we reached the outskirts of the city. Vendors sold fruit from roadside stands, and we drove past a couple of cemeteries and stores selling altars and funerary sculptures. It felt like we were in the middle of nowhere. The road narrowed to one lane, bordered by the freeway on the right and what looked like rice paddies to the left. Then finally we saw a sign announcing the church and we made a left turn up a dirt road.

By then it was almost eleven o’clock and the sun was beating down. We climbed out of the cool, shaded, air-conditioned car into the white heat of the parking lot. Although we were only a few steps away from the church entrance, we opened a parasol for my dad and fanned ourselves furiously in the hundred-degree heat as we walked up to the church.

Outside the entrance, we took off our shoes and walked barefoot onto the clean linoleum. The first thing I noticed were the foam board cutout signs on the back wall behind the pulpit: “Mr. Ted Loh, Sept. 23, 2010” in English and Thai. Some flower displays and a portrait of my brother were placed on the right hand side below the platform, along with two wooden horses presumably to hold the coffin. An organ stood to the left. Instead of pews there were rows of lightweight stacking chairs. About twenty or thirty people were already there, talking quietly amongst themselves, and more continued to arrive. Several got up to greet Ted’s wife and the kids as we entered. My uncle handed us a copy of the program, which was in Thai, as well as a copy of the hymn he planned to sing, which was in Chinese and English.

Four men entered carrying the coffin and set it down on the wooden horses, then covered it carefully with a white lace sheet. A part of me still couldn’t believe that was my brother in the box, and that he would from this day forward be represented by that framed portrait, reduced to a one-dimensional nine-by-twelve. I was used to seeing my deceased elder relatives in this way, flat images suspended in time and space. But this was someone I lived with for fifteen years, whose voice I clearly remembered out-arguing me, or declaring victory over a game of Scrabble. I used to complain bitterly about our clothes being washed in the same load of laundry, because the scent of his sweat-soaked athletic uniforms would overpower everything. His famous appetite always dwarfed mine, and his muscular bulk always crossed the imaginary dividing line into my half of the backseat. He was loud, cocky and opinionated, an outsize presence even to those who only knew him through online interactions. My brother was the opposite of a quiet spirit or ghostly ancestor, someone whose flesh-and-blood-ness it was impossible to deny.

Rev. Srisuwan began the service and welcomed the mourners, then another reverend gave a short sermon, which was partially translated into English by Elder Lee. But the majority of the service was in Thai, and I wondered what it was like for my dad—the multilingual one—to experience what I had been through countless times before… being an outsider due to language. My brother and I were used to being outsiders in Taiwan since we didn’t speak Taiwanese. Here in Bangkok, my brother was the one who was assimilated and my dad and relatives and I were the outsiders who needed help.

Jenny was called up to the stage to say a few words. She got up and addressed the audience with great composure and warmth, even though I didn’t understand what she was saying. I recalled for a moment my own wedding, when we had just heard a round of toasts and people were nudging me, the bride, to say something. But I was too shy, and I let the moment pass without formally expressing my happiness and gratitude to all the people assembled that day. And here was Jenny, only sixteen years old, showing such courage and maturity to say a few words at her father’s funeral.

My uncle got up onstage to sing the hymn, his contribution to the service. He had composed the music, and the words were written by an American poet. “In the bulb there is a flower, in the seed an apple tree…” My cousin Un-chun accompanied him on the organ. Since he sang in English, it was one of the few parts of the service that I completely understood.

The serviced culminated with the casket being opened for a final viewing, and mourners being invited to take a rose from a tray and put it into the coffin. Ted’s wife went first, followed by Jenny, Shelly and Billy, and the restraint of the preceding hour was broken by a chorus of “Daddy! Daddy!” This was the final goodbye. After depositing the roses by their father’s cheek, the girls stood in front of the casket holding the trays of flowers for the rest of the mourners, their thin bodies trembling with each sob, using their free hands to wipe their tears.

I helped steady my dad as we walked up to the front and placed our flowers into the coffin. I mouthed, “I love you,” and paused for a moment to take in the stillness of my brother’s face. My dad said, “Go in peace.” We sat down again and watched as the rest of the people took their turns, the pile of white roses diminishing one by one as each was placed into the coffin before it was sealed up one last time, unleashing a fresh burst of wailing.

When the service ended, the coffin was carried out a sliding glass door on the right and then loaded through another set of dark glass doors and then lowered down. Only then did I realize that the crematorium was attached to the church, and that those glass doors represented the final exit for my brother’s body. I did not go up closer to look. We went over to huddle with the family.

“Do you know what your dad’s name means?” my dad asked his grandchildren. They shook their heads.

“’Theodore’ means God’s gift,” he explained. “Now we are giving him back to God.”

The next day, we went to Pattaya to scatter Ted’s ashes in a place that he loved. It’s a popular beach resort about two hours away from Bangkok. Ted met his wife there and the family often went there on weekends for fun. I remember going there with a tour in 2001, the year I met Anil. We drove around for a long time and I looked at all the signs in the beachside town—real estate, bars, massage parlors, and restaurants catering to every possible nationality. All around us was a general whiff of vice. Pattaya was clearly the kind of place you go to lose yourself. It had all the hallmarks of an adult playground—lots of bars, scantily clad women, karaoke and cabarets, hotels with suggestive names, etc. A recent article in the New York Times proclaimed: “Las Vegas may be Sin City, but Pattaya is a bear hug from Lucifer himself.”

Various signs around the beach advertised Latex Plaza, Pink Lady, Harry Potter Travel, Rewards for Drug Info—DEA, Sugar Sweet, Moonshine, Nirvana, Heaven, Paradise. There were posters all over town for something called the Angry Whopper—an oversized Burger King burger laced with fiery red chilies, developed to appeal to local tastes. We drove around for quite a while, from one side of the bay to the other, looking for parking. At one point Ted’s wife got out to negotiate the cost of renting a boat. We finally got out of the car and jaywalked across the street to the beach.

The boat was about ten meters off the beach and we had to take off our shoes and roll our pants up to wade into the shallow water to get on board. Two of us walked on either side of my dad, steadying him. We stopped to consider the best way for him to get on the boat. He was thinking about just sitting in a deck chair on the beach and waiting for us because it would be too much trouble to get him on and off the boat, but I told him, Dad, you’re here, you have to come with us. This is important. The minister who accompanied us offered to carry my dad piggyback to get to the boat. I was surprised when my dad accepted the offer, knowing how he hates to ask for help or to trouble anyone with his needs. But I was glad that he came with us, and so was he.

We took the boat out a few miles from the beach past the parasailers, then stopped about half a mile away from a small island. Jenny and Shelly untied the white bundles—what looked like oversize cloth napkins from a restaurant, each tied up with a ribbon. One bore my brother’s leftover bone fragments from the cremation, and the other was filled with ashes. Ted’s wife also brought along a large traditional silver bowl filled with marigold and white flower petals.

There were ten of us total—Ted’s wife, Jenny, Shelly, Billy, me, my dad, Uncle I-to, Un-chun, the minister, and the driver of the boat. All of the family members took turns gathering a handful of Ted’s ashes with a handful of the flower petals, and tossing them into the ocean. There was no prayer or ceremony, nor an excess of emotion. The boat motor had been idled and all we could hear was the occasional whir of a camera.

I don’t know how many times I dipped my hands into my brother’s ashes, and cradled the bone fragments. If I thought too hard about it I would recoil, but something told me it was important to get my hands dirty, to fully partake of this silent ritual. It was easier for me—for all of us—to just do it than to reflect on what we were doing, otherwise the emotions would come up.

“Bye, Daddy!” said Billy, in a tone that sounded like he was just bidding farewell at the airport to someone who was coming back.

All that was left of my brother’s physical being was released into the ocean, blown away by the wind, the flower petals floating on the water the only visible trace of this final act. Ted’s wife and Jenny shook out the white cloths to dispose of everything. I don’t know if they reserved any of the ash to keep with them at home. There was no sink to wash our hands on the boat, so we passed around hand sanitizer and wipes. Once we were done—no more than a half hour after we had arrived—we turned the boat around and motored back to the beach.

We took a few more photos. Again, there was very little conversation but I took turns hugging Ted’s wife, the girls, and Billy. Although it was cloudy and we were returning from a somber task, there was something oddly uplifting about the ride back—the ocean breeze, our hair whipping in the wind, the sound of the motor, the spray hitting our faces. I felt peaceful. We steered past dozens of rainbow colored parachutes used by the parasailers, floating blithely in the air like airborne jellyfish. I thought as I looked at the family, Ted wants you to be happy. And I felt strangely happy and relieved.

Once back on shore, we got back into two cars and drove around for some time looking for a place to have lunch. It was already after noon and we were all hungry. We drove from one side of Pattaya to the other side and finally ended up at Pupen Seafood, an open air restaurant in Jomtien Beach. We ordered a large array of dishes—stir fried crab and shrimp in yellow curry, spicy calamari, sweet and sour fish, shrimp with pea shoots, sautéed vegetables, and two kinds of soup. Although the restaurant wasn’t very comfortable—we sat on long, hard benches at heavy wooden tables—the food was outstanding. Even my dad said it was the best meal of the entire trip. It occurred to me later that Ted would have disapproved—he hated seafood. But the rest of us ate very well.